Bike Sharing: The Newest Mode of Public Transport
It's time we start considering bike sharing programs, like London's Barclays Cycle Hire, as part of a city's public transit mix. Photo by duncan c.

It's time we start considering bike sharing programs, like London's Barclays Cycle Hire, as part of a city's public transit mix. Photo by duncan c.

With bike sharing systems popping up all over the world, it’s about time we look critically at the role these systems can play in a city’s urban fabric and transportation system. While bikes have been an integral part of the modal mix in many cities for years, they served a similar purpose to automobiles: exclusively personal mobility. Bike sharing has altered that paradigm, essentially creating a new mode of public transit.

James May, best known for his car-loving contributions to BBC’s Top Gear, professes his love for cycling in his most recent column in the Telegraph. He praises London’s new bike sharing program, Barclays Cycle Hire, for its various merits, but he also laments, among other things:

“[B]y being yoked to the rack system, the bicycle, this ultimate symbol of mobility and freedom for the masses, effectively becomes public transport: it doesn’t leave from precisely where you are and doesn’t arrive at exactly where you want to be. Unless you work as a bicycle rack attendant, the very point of the bicycle is somewhat defeated.”

The key part of his statement is the first sentence. May says that under a bike sharing scheme “the bicycle…effectively becomes public transport.”  But to frame this negatively, as he does, is a mistake.  This is precisely the greatest characteristic of these growing programs: they are a new part of the public transit portfolio.

Personal bicycles suffer from the same downfall that personal automobiles do: they spend most of their time parked, unoccupied and unused. Cities around the world have recognized this as bike racks, sign posts, fences and every other imaginable object narrow enough to accommodate a lock are overwhelmed with bikes, many of which have been abandoned by their owners and subsequently stripped of any utility by thieves and scavengers.

An abundance of vehicles languishing unused results in a massive loss of efficiency, both in wasted resources and income, and is precisely the problem that bike sharing seeks to address.  If I only need a bike for 20 minutes, why shouldn’t anyone else be able to use it after that time, as long as I have access to one when I need it again?

Yes, there are some inconveniences to bike sharing vis-à-vis using your personal bike, but with a large, dense, and well-distributed system, these are minor. Instead, residents get most of the benefits of cycling along with many of the benefits of the public transit, meanwhile avoiding several downsides to both. Users can forgo the cost of bike ownership and responsibilities and concerns that go with it but eliminate the time loss that comes with waiting for a bus or train.

As more and more cities add programs, it is important to more concretely define bike sharing as a mode of public transportation. This can have several consequences:

In the United States, much of the federal aid money available to cities and states for transportation can only be spent on capital and operating expenses of public transit.  The Federal Transit Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, awarded $3 million to Boston for a regional bike sharing program under a recent livability grant competition, but this award was made under a discretionary program where the administration has somewhat more flexibility in project eligibility. Defining bike sharing clearly as a form of public transit will open up new moneys for state and local governments to spend on such systems.

Acceptance of bike sharing as a public transit mode will also help it to be considered more seriously by cities looking to expand their transit services. Cities around the world are cash-strapped, leading many to a lose-lose dilemma of higher quality service covering a smaller portion of the population versus lower quality service covering a larger portion. One of the beauties of bike sharing as public transit is that it is indescribably cheap.

The most basic clean-diesel 40 foot transit bus costs upwards of $350,000 and carries a maximum load of around 70 people for a cost of $5000 per passenger capacity. This estimate is very conservative, since many agencies now opt for more expensive hybrid or compressed natural gas buses.  Rail rolling stock is more expensive per passenger capacity.  The highest quality bike share bicycles, such as the ones manufactured by Public Bike System (BIXI) and used in cities like Washington, D.C. and Montreal, cost about $2,000 apiece.

Certainly bike share systems incur operating costs, but these are relatively small compared to other modes.   And while the start-up capital costs are rather high, as bike share systems proliferate and expand, these costs will continue to fall (DC has already identified its replacement cost at $1000 per bike). With new concepts like the Social Bicycle System (SoBi), which allows users to find and unlock bikes using a mobile phone, there is clear opportunity to reduce capital costs of bike sharing even further.

Even at current costs, bike sharing systems offer a significantly cheaper solution to the first-mile/last-mile dilemma that faces many cities looking to build subway, light rail or bus rapid transit (BRT) systems. Feeder buses are notoriously inefficient both operationally and environmentally. Well-placed bike sharing networks can more efficiently complement trunk-line transit services.

This point cannot be overstated. With appropriate station densities and sizes, cities can create hub-and-spoke style systems centered around prominent bus stops, rail station or multimodal centers. At suburban stations, if a bike share system can replace the need for even one parking space in the park-and-ride lot, it would probably be a worthwhile investment and even financially beneficial, particularly for systems that provide parking for free.

While bike sharing faces challenges in many American cities because of the propensity of segregated, single-use activity centers, as the Transport Politic’s Yonah Freemark described, this issue is far less prominent in cities in the developing world. Still, developing world cities may struggle to balance universal availability of a system against the gate-keeping devices that current cities have in place to deter vandalism and theft.  Is it reasonable to expect poor residents of Delhi, for example, to have a credit card with which to secure a deposit for a lost or stolen bike? Probably not. But the spread of mobile phones and their increasing use in the developing world for banking and payments may offer future solutions to these problems.

As Freemark has also discussed, there are certain prerequisites for a bike sharing system to be highly successful.  This is indeed true, as Washington, D.C. is learning firsthand in replacing its marginally successful SmartBike with the order-of-magnitude-larger Capital Bikeshare.  The new program already has twice the subscribers and four times the daily rides that SmartBike did—and it is not quite two months old.

Of course bike sharing, like any other transit mode, can be done well or it can be done poorly. Obviously we should prefer well-executed systems. But a light rail line that is poorly designed and attracts low ridership is still considered public transit. Thus we shouldn’t allow the debate about what design elements make bike sharing most successful to distract us from the a more important fact: that this debate is ultimately one of transit planning, not recreational planning or vending market research.

One way or another, the introduction of bike sharing along with the revival of bicycling as a legitimate mode of transportation can have nothing but positive effects on the transport sector. After all, bicycling is possibly the most efficient and sustainable transport mode we have. As May so elegantly puts it:

The bicycle might just be the greatest of all inventions. [It] mobilises nations, … [is] the lever pulled right back on the great derailleur of transport life, and a means of getting around that will survive Armageddon.

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